Discipleship (2): Simple Obedience

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 19, 2021

St. Paul – Lyons, KS

Wisdom 2:12,17-20; Psalm 54:3-6, 8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37

Discipleship Revisited

In the Gospel last week, Jesus’ attention and focus made a dramatic turn. The Kingdom of God is arriving in and through him, he is demonstrating the reality and concreteness of this Kingdom through works of power, and his disciples have confessed and admitted: this is the Christ. Remember Peter: “You are the Messiah. Jesus, you are the one who will fulfill everything the LORD has promised us. You are the one who will fulfill the deepest longings of our heart. You are the Christ, the Messiah, the one we have been waiting for” (c.f., Mark 8:29).

And that is precisely when everything shifted! Once the disciples have taken the risk, decided that this is the one they have been waiting for—then Jesus starts to share what this looks like. The disciples have a very clear and articulate picture in their mind of who and what the Messiah is: he is the one that will come to rescue them from all of the terrible powers that rule the world and enslave and oppress and destroy them. And they’re right! But in their minds, the terrible powers that enslave and oppress and destroy them are called Rome, Babylon, and Egypt. So Jesus’ next words throw them way off, throw ‘em for a loop.

Jesus said: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days.” Remember that? Does that sound like he’s going to be gloriously triumphant over Rome and Babylon and Egypt? Nope. Sounds like a big L. And that’s why Peter rebukes him. “Uh Jesus, I wasn’t born yesterday, I know what the Messiah is supposed to do, and that’s not it!”

And that’s when Jesus completely refocuses what it means to be the Messiah, and what it means to be part of the Messiah’s people, to be his disciple. He says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Do you see how upside down that is? If everyone thought that the Messiah was supposed to come and defeat the terrible powers of the world—how could any of this be the game plan? But that’s the point. The Messiah has come to confront and defeat powers much stronger than Rome or Babylon or Egypt. The Messiah has come to defeat the powers of Sin, Death, Satan, and Hell. And so to be a disciple, to be in relationship with him, means to share in his life, to share in his mission of defeating those powers. In other words, just like he does himself, Jesus is inviting us to set aside a life of self-invention and self-reliance, and instead to follow him on the path of complete dependence on and trust in and obedience to the Father.

Dad’s Golden Rule: Simple Obedience

As a child, my father taught me the golden rule. And I’m not talking about the golden rule of, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” I’m taking about the Golden Rule, you know: simple obedience. As my Dad would so often remind me, “Whenever your mom asks you to do something, Michael, your response is, ‘Yes, Mom! Anything else I can do for you, Mom?’” For some reason, simple obedience was a difficult lesson for me to learn. Shocking, I know: ol’ Fr. Michael was not a little angel, and this lesson had to be repeated quite often.

But I have a feeling I was not alone in that. We are all faced the dilemma: “Should I do what my parents say and trust that my parents have my best interests in mind? Or should I go with my own ideas and do what I think is best?” As a kid, it’s hard to accept that doing chores is good for you. As a kid, it’s hard to believe that doing the dishes, or cleaning the house, or mowing the lawn is good for you. Why? Well, because it feels like you’re just your parents’ servant, and your parents are just being lazy and not doing the work themselves. But as adults (or even just as older siblings who see their little siblings getting away with way more than we did) we realize that it’s in these simple ways that kids learn responsibility, time management, money management, work ethic; they learn that life is not about them, that life involves not only doing what you feel like doing.

In other words, it’s a lot easier to look back and to see that a lot of the things we were forced to do were actually for our good, and we’re even grateful for having been forced to do them. We see the value in obedience, especially when the person telling us what to do has our best interests in mind.

But we don’t have parents forever, we don’t have to listen to them for forever. And sooner or later we’re out on our own, we start to forge our own path. And “simple obedience” gets thrown out the window. We don’t have to listen to anyone. We start to listen to ourselves and what we want. We get a job, make money, we live our own life, we’re in charge. And before we realize it, we have forgotten what our parents taught us: simple obedience. And perhaps this is why the message Christ is trying to teach us today is so difficult to accept.

To Be Like Children, Not Despots

Like last week, today Jesus again predicts his passion and death. And of course, the disciples are left scratching their heads, not understanding, too afraid to ask what this means. There’s that classic line: “They did not understand.” They don’t understand what Jesus is saying! Jesus, the man they have confessed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, isn’t making sense—but he isn’t making sense because they are too caught up in their preconceived idea of what this Messiah is supposed to do, and they can’t fathom that it could be any different.

And so Jesus places a child in their midsts. At that time, a child was pretty much a nonperson with no legal rights or status of their own (Healy, 186). In fact, in both Greek and Aramaic, the word for “child” can also be translated as “servant.” In other words: a child’s role was to obey. When Jesus places a child in their midst what he’s trying to get across is not some cliché, “Be young and innocent and naive.” No, he trying to tell them, “Life is not about being the one who makes history, who conquers the world, who makes the most money, and has worldly power. Life is not about who can be the greatest or who can be the most powerful or who can exert the most influence on others. Life is about Another, affirming that there is Another who makes us who we truly are. Life is about surrender to Another, simple obedience to Another.”

This sounds crazy. I know. We’re raised to think that the goal is to be able to take care of yourself, to provide for yourself, to be the one to forge your own path, your own destiny, to make your own history. We see it throughout history. In the extreme cases, think of those people that decided they had to take over the world: Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Adolf Hitler. They thought they could change the world by their own power, by the sheer force of their own will. But even though these were some of the most powerful people in history, even they couldn’t succeed. And we all try to do this on a much smaller scale. We try to take over our own lives, to be the one who can shape and change our history and destiny. And yet over and over and over again, we experience that this never works.

Discipleship: Adopted Sons and Daughters of the Father

And this is why the message of our Lord in the Gospel today can be so misunderstood and left unheard. When Jesus predicts his passion (especially in today’s prediction) he is not talking about the need for the Son of Man to die per se, but about the need for the Son of Man, humanity itself, to completely surrender to the will of Another. He is talking about the need for his humble obedience to his Father, obedience to the point of suffering and death, even death on a cross. Though he is God, Jesus humbled himself, emptied himself of his own greatness, and instead became man, became a human child, became obedient. Even in the garden, Jesus prays that he will not have to go through with it; yet even then he obeys: “Not my will, but your will be done.” And it is through this obedience that his greatness is revealed, that his action as Savior is revealed. Through the obedience of a child, history is made, the world and history are changed forever!

We think that at some point we can go it alone, that at some point obedience becomes obsolete. And if we only see obedience as being forced to do things we don’t want to do, then yeah, obedience isn’t worth it. But that’s not the obedience the Lord is asking of us. He is asking us to obey, to listen to his example, and realize that the greatest things in history do not come from seizing power or taking care of ourselves, but from handing everything over to Another, from handing our lives over to Another, by placing our lives in the Lord’s hands. In other words: by being his disciples; denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and following him. In this way, we live free from the powers of the world, and instead are caught up in the Force that truly moves history and truly makes us happy.

Because at the end of the day, we either believe in our own power, or we believe in God. And I’ve never seen someone’s belief in their own power work out in the end. Not even Jesus believed that (c.f., John 6:38). And so we look on our own experience to show that when we trust that the person who is telling us what to do truly has our best interests in mind, simple obedience is the key. And that simple obedience can lead us through a hundred different set of day-to-day circumstances, but by being faithful and obedient to those simple daily circumstances and even sufferings, that’s how history is made, and that’s where our happiness lies. We are sons and daughters of a good Father. And our life is fulfilled in relationship to Him, in relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ.

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